Turnbull's big call: Disconnecting NBN

Opinion by John Doyle

New leaders often come with a BHAG - a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. A classic BHAG was John Kennedy's commitment in early 1961 to land a man on the moon within a decade.

Landing - image credit GThomas BowerCloser to home, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said last week he wanted to "depoliticise" the National Broadband Network and run it according to "rational economic criteria". Given the history of telecommunications in Australia, including the NBN's own short history, this easily qualifies as a BHAG - albeit a worthy one.

This is because politics and telecommunications in Australia go together like shoes and socks, sometimes with equally smelly results.

For most of Australia's history, government has played a direct role in providing telecoms services and there have always been conflicting objectives at the heart of telecoms policy: universal service provision on the one hand and commercial efficiency on the other.

Nowhere has this tension been stronger than in country areas, where provisioning and maintenance costs are higher than in the cities. The political fight over nationally uniform NBN prices v a price cap model is simply its latest incarnation.

The first commonwealth government body given responsibility for domestic telecommunications (and postal services) was the Postmaster-General's Department. Formed two months after Federation in January 1901, the PMG was at birth Australia's largest organisation and already had been the focus of debate.

The Barton government was divided between those, such as the postmaster-general, James Drake, who wanted the PMG to run as a business, and others who wanted it to be more "service-oriented" to ensure the bush was put on a sustainable footing.

Ultimately, the PMG was expected to do both.

Earlier this year, then communications minister Stephen Conroy dismissed suggestions that the NBN rollout was favouring marginal Labor electorates by stating that NBN Co's "engineers wouldn't know an electorate or a boundary if it hit them in the head". That could be so, but there have always been politicians ready to show them.

Billy Hughes, a prime minister of Labor and then Nationalist governments during and immediately after World War I, once claimed it was "the dearest wish" of all politicians to win new telephone facilities to their electorates.

And during Robert Menzies' long post-war reign, when senior Country Party MPs Larry Anthony and Charles Davidson had a lock on the postmaster-general portfolio, pointing PMG resources at regional electorates was bread-and-butter politics.

During Anthony's first five years as minister, the number of automatic telephone exchanges in country areas increased by nearly 300 per cent. And for many years the price for connecting a telephone in the country was kept below that for the cities. So when the former country independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott cited the NBN and regional broadband services as key to their decision to support a minority Labor government after the 2010 federal election, they were operating well within the Australian political mainstream.

In claiming he wants to reduce political meddling in the NBN and describing himself as "agnostic" on broadband technology, Turnbull to some extent is following in Gough Whitlam's footsteps when he was opposition leader in the late 1960s.

Whitlam said he did not consider telecoms policy "as a philosophical or ideological issue". He believed interference in the PMG's operational plans and pricing arrangements by the then Liberal-Country government was a major cause of its chronic financial dependence on Treasury and inability to satisfy the surging demand for telephone services in the 60s.

Whitlam's wish to reduce the level of "direct political manipulation" in the PMG's infrastructure rollout and the provision of communications services was an important driver in Labor's push to replace the department with a relatively independent statutory authority.

The Whitlam government ultimately established a new authority, known as Telecom, a few months before the Dismissal. While it quickly became obvious that Telecom and politics would never be far apart, creating the new authority was nonetheless a step in the right direction.

The NBN has been an inherently political construct since its inception and Turnbull's goal of depoliticising it will face an array of significant challenges. But if he does away with the kind of political micro-managing practised by the previous government, such as directing NBN Co to start network roll-out in every electorate by mid-2016, and puts the project on to a more operationally rational track, it will be a great leap forward.

First published on The Australian on 4 October 2013.

John Doyle is a tutor in Politics at La Trobe University.

Image credit: QThomas Bower on Flickr